If I thought of Dwight Macdonald every time I came across a PBS pledge drive, I would think of Dwight Macdonald much more often than I do. But I do think of him now and then, and the pledge drive is usually the occasion for it. When America stares wide-eyed as its intellectual public TV network shills for itself with doo-wop concerts and Suze Orman get-rich pep talks, we can thank Macdonald. He’s the spiritual father to the pledge drive.
A witty magazine writer who thrived from the forties through the early seventies, Macdonald was a steady contributor not only to “little magazines” like Partisan Review and Commentary but also, in a rare instance of journalistic crossdressing, to the high-paying slicks: Esquire, the New Yorker, Fortune. He died in 1982, already well on the way to the boneyard of soon-to-be-forgotten hacks. If he is known today, it is for “Masscult and Midcult,” a long piece published in 1960. It’s still a useful marker for anyone interested in the decline of American culture. The New York Review of Books—where the decline is not only celebrated but seems to occur before your very eyes—has now republished the essay along with nine others, in an eponymous collection assembled by John Summers, editor of the left-wing journal the Baffler. An introduction has been tacked on, too, written by (inhale) the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English at Harvard University, Louis Menand, who has not yet begun his own trip to the boneyard.
Menand takes a weirdly sniffish approach toward the man whose book he’s introducing, but he does a nice job summarizing the theme of Macdonald’s most famous essay. At the time Macdonald wrote, it was common for intellectuals to divide culture phrenologically, into highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow. Good intellectuals were of course highbrow (The Rite of Spring, Ulysses, the houses of Frank Lloyd Wright); the masses they condescended to, and pretended to champion, were content with the low (Louis L’Amour novels, “Come On-a My House,” Levittown).
But for Macdonald, “the real enemy,” writes Menand, “was the literature, music, theater, art, and criticism of middle-class high-mindedness.” These productions broke down the wall between high and low and created the third category: “a debased form of High Culture,” neither High nor Low, that Macdonald called Midcult. In Menand’s phrase, it was “the culture of middlebrow aspiration.” He took it as an affront. In Midcult, Macdonald wrote, “everything becomes a commodity, to be mined for $$$$, used for something it is not, from Davy Crockett to Picasso. . . . [It is] a corruption of High Culture which . . . is able to pass itself off as the real thing.”
He could be devastating and cruel in describing its artifacts, and most of the essays that accompany “Masscult and Midcult” are demolition jobs of a high order. Their energy and brass make them splendid reading. Nothing quite like them is being produced today, treating serious questions with rarefied (and funny) wisecracks and a total disregard for collateral damage. He takes down the novels of James Gould Cozzens, the Book of the Month Club, the Great Books Series, and magazines like Horizon, Saturday Review, and the slicks manufactured by Henry Luce and Time-Life.
Life magazine, for example, was designed to appeal to everyone alike by homogenizing its content.
The same issue will present a serious exposition of atomic energy followed by a disquisition on Rita Hayworth’s love life; photos of starving children picking garbage in Calcutta and of sleek models wearing adhesive brassieres; . . . nine color pages of Renoir paintings followed by a picture of a roller-skating horse. . . . Somehow these scramblings together seem to work all one way, degrading the serious rather than elevating the frivolous. . . . Just think, nine pages of Renoirs! But that roller-skating horse comes along, and the final impression is that both Renoir and the horse were talented.
This is sharp and funny and, in the case of some small number of Life readers, surely true; it’s also wrongheaded and finally destructive. Macdonald wrote at the apogee of America’s middlebrow era. Saturday Review—whose editor, a bag o’ wind called Norman Cousins, was a favorite target of Macdonald’s—had 600,000 American readers; today a magazine with comparable content would be lucky to break 40,000, in a country half again the size. Television networks (all three of them!) set aside time for productions that could educate viewers into a greater appreciation of art: Omnibus, for example, and Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts. Ed Sullivan made sure his audience got to see Topo Gigio or Elvis—but he also gave them, with an instructive reverence, Andrés Segovia and Roberta Peters.
Menand is right to recognize that aspiration was the motive force behind the middlebrow, but the more crucial point is that aspiration of this kind assumed that some pleasures, some works of imagination, were simply better than others—more likely to cultivate the mind and heart and lead to a fulfilling life. And aspiration being a close relative of humility, it was understood that an appreciation of excellence required an education at the hands of people who knew more than you did.
All of this is long gone, of course. In the original introduction to Against the American Grain (1962), from which Summers selected most of the pieces in the new book, Macdonald saw two solutions to the “problem” of “everyone getting into the act,” culturally speaking: We could make “(a) an attempt to integrate the masses into high culture; or (b) a contrary attempt to define two cultures, one for the masses and the other for the classes.” He favored the second option, thinking the first was a fool’s errand. But a third option never occurred to him: that high culture would cease to exist, or at least disappear almost entirely from the general scene.
And that’s what happened. High culture and the middlebrow died one after the other. Both were victims of relativism—the quasi-religious faith of post-sixties eggheads, who abandoned any notions of objective excellence as culturally determined, or as mere artifacts of exploitation, or as mechanisms of social control, or as all of the above. When the idea of objective merit—one thing is better than another, and here’s why—went away, the aspiration to seek it went away, too.
The embrace of relativism meant that the second-rate would be conflated with the sublime. In the years after Macdonald’s essay, Menand writes approvingly, “a great river of pop, camp, soulful, performative [?], outrageous, over-the-top cultural products flooded the scene, and Macdonald’s system of cultural judgment was left stranded on the far shore.” As premier examples of this “culture of sophisticated entertainment,” he mentions such unwatchable movies and TV shows as Bonnie and Clyde and All in the Family and the vastly overpraised music of Motown and Bob Dylan. In an amazing coincidence, all this sophistication matched the taste of Baby Boomers like Louis Menand and his peers. (Funny how that works.) Soon enough, being overschooled and undereducated themselves, they could take up their tenured professorships and apply tools of criticism that had been built for Henry James and Maurice Ravel and apply them to Alice Walker and Lou Reed, until the latter seemed as worthy as the former. I mean, who’s to say?
Relativism has the effect of Gresham’s law: The bad sooner or later drives out the good, and the low the high. Its triumph would have horrified Dwight Macdonald, to judge by the essays, while it bothers the Harvard professor not at all. Macdonald’s chief complaint about Midcult was that it would fudge distinctions between the genuinely beautiful and profound and its slipshod imitators. Macdonald always considered himself a man of the left, but in this collection you’ll find passages of surpassing right-wingery. In 1962 he published a furious protest against the just-published Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, in which the lexicographers officially abandoned the attempt to distinguish between the correct and incorrect usage of words.
There are several reasons that it is important to maintain standards in the use of a language. English, like other languages, is beautiful when properly used, and beauty can be achieved only by attention to form, which means setting limits. . . . The kind of permissiveness that permeates [Webster’s Third] results, oddly, in less rather than more individuality, since the only way an individual can “express himself” is in relation to a social norm—in the case of language, to standard usage. . . . If the very idea of form, or standards, is lacking, then how can one violate it?
I doubt that Macdonald knew the destructive power of his mockery of the middlebrow. He wasn’t a nihilist, as passages like this one prove. But he was a trendsetter, and when he and the other left-wing highbrows of his generation assailed bourgeois aspiration so devastatingly, so amusingly, the fashion-conscious intellectuals who followed him were bound to find all that striving for excellence infra dig—just too terribly middle class.
That’s why a PBS pledge drive often brings him to mind. Public broadcasting was one of the last great groaning exertions of the middlebrow. When it was consolidated by the federal government in the late 1960s, E. B. White provided a letter that the first public broadcasters took as a credo:
Non-commercial TV should address itself to the ideal of excellence. . . . I think TV should be providing the visual counterpart of the literary essay, should arouse our dreams, satisfy our hunger for beauty, take us on journeys, enable us to participate in events, present great drama and music, explore the sea and the sky and the woods and the hills. It should be our Lyceum, our Chautauqua, our Minsky’s, and our Camelot.
If only! I don’t know what your vision of Camelot is, but I’ll bet Suze Orman isn’t in it.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.